Two monkeys overheard at the zoo: One, glancing back and forth between The Bible and Darwin’s “Origin of Species” which he’s holding in his hands, says to the other with a puzzled look, “I can’t decide if I’m my brother’s keeper or my keeper’s brother.”
The southern U.S. of the 1920s was a battleground of words and laws over the issue of the creationist view of mankind of the Bible and evolutionary views originating with Charles Darwin. Tennessee had a law on the books that banned all state-supported schools from teaching the evolutionary theory and the first test occurred in Dayton, a farming community just north of Chattanooga. John T. Scopes, a public schoolteacher, was charged for violating this law. The resulting court case became known as the Scopes Monkey Trial, and the publicity that the impending court proceedings generated resulted in each side being represented by a high-profile attorney of the time. William Jennings Bryan, a three-time Democratic presidential candidate, argued for the prosecution and Clarence Darrow, the country’s most famous criminal lawyer, argued for the defense.
Producer and director Stanley Kramer recognized the film opportunity (it had already been dramatized on stage on Broadway) that this event offered. It had the pageantry of a town totally swept up in the issue, the presence of national and local media, and hot weather that contributed to the heat generated by the issue itself. But most of all, the event offered the chance to focus on people in conflict — in this instance, two legal combatants who were larger than life and both passionate about the rightness of their positions on the issue. The completed picture — Inherit the Wind — was released in 1960 to very good reviews, but did not do very well at the box office. United Artists, the distributor, was intimidated by religious groups that opposed the film and refused to spend money to advertise and promote it. Those theatres that did show the film suffered from demonstrations against both the picture and Stanley Kramer as being anti-God. Interestingly, though, Trans World Airlines apparently had no qualms in selecting the film as the world’s first in-flight movie when the company used it to lure first-class passengers.
MGM Home Entertainment has now released Inherit the Wind on DVD in one of its bare-bones editions.
Science teacher Bertram T. Cates is arrested for teaching the theory of evolution to his class in the small town of Hillsboro. Under strong pressure from town officials and his friends to agree to discontinue such teaching, Cates refuses and the case goes to trial. The impending trial comes to the attention of big city newspaperman E.K. Hornbeck whose stories on it soon make the matter an event of national concern. Powerful interests on both sides engage the best possible counsel to present their cases. For the prosecution, the choice is Matthew Harrison Brady, a nationally prominent fundamentalist lawyer and for the defense, it is Henry Drummond, the nation’s leading criminal lawyer. The two wage a series of titanic courtroom struggles, but in the end it is not oratory and clear thinking, but local pragmatism that really decides the matter.
Inherit the Wind is a film that has grown in stature with time. Although well reviewed upon initial release, many pointed to the disappointing box office results and claimed it to be a failure. The film refused to be buried, however, and was revived theatrically and on television, with more and more people recognizing its fairness on the issues and the excellence of the production, particularly the quality of the performances by the principal actors.
Playing the part of Matthew Brady (William Jennings Bryan) is Fredric March. He was Stanley Kramer’s choice for the role because he had the acting skill and range to play the larger than life character even though he didn’t quite look the part. March was quite agreeable to participating as Bryan was a fascinating personality and the part played to March’s strengths. There was often a slight element of ham to March’s acting and that’s exactly what was needed with the Bryan role. For Henry Drummond (Clarence Darrow), Kramer also knew whom he wanted — Spencer Tracy — but Tracy was harder to persuade, partly because he wasn’t sure whether he could work with Kramer. In the end he agreed (and eventually became a fixture in Kramer films, appearing in Judgment at Nuremberg, It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner).
The interaction of Tracy and March is what really makes the film. Both are such wonderful actors that they are able to make the positions of their characters sound convincing. Both manage to develop a little set of mannerisms that serve to distract the audience while each other is speaking. March continually plays to the courtroom audience with rolls of his eyes, rubbing his head, or agitated fanning of his face. Tracy’s efforts are less obvious, but just as effective — lengthy pauses, contemptuous expressions. It is, as Kramer has noted, “…a remarkable experience to watch two great professionals, standing toe to toe, each staying within the limits of his strongest acting skills — Tracy as an elegant expressive man of inner conviction, March as a vociferous, bombastic preacher and orator.”
Also of interest in Inherit the Wind is a rare dramatic role for Gene Kelly. He plays the newspaperman E.K. Hornbeck, who is actually H.L. Mencken who wrote for the Baltimore Sun. Kramer saw Mencken as an American original. Kelly was too and he was able to convey the intelligence and occasional humour that the part required quite effectively. A number of other small roles in the film are well handled by familiar character actors (Harry Morgan as the judge, Claude Akins as Reverend Brown, Dick York as Cates, Florence Eldridge [Fredric March’s wife in real life] as Brady’s wife, and in unbilled roles — Norman Fell, Ray Teal, and Earle Hodgins).
I offer a nod also to a fine screenplay written by Nedrick Young (AKA Nathan Douglas) and Harold Smith. On Kramer’s orders, they kept close to the transcript and descriptions of the trial at the time. The result is a beautifully worded script that delivers several fine exchanges between the two lawyers, and by all accounts accurately captures the essence of the original event.
MGM has released Inherit the Wind on DVD in what I suspect is just a direct port of the previous laserdisc transfer. The film is presented in a widescreen, non-anamorphic transfer — standard for MGM where 1.66:1 films are concerned, as this is. That all said, this is quite a pleasing effort. The image is crisp and clear, with occasional grain and the odd speckle from time to time. Shadow detail is excellent. Edge enhancement is non-existent.
The sound is Dolby Digital mono and delivers this dialogue-driven film very well. Dialogue is clear and free of hiss and distortion. French and Spanish mono tracks are included, as are French and Spanish subtitles.
This is a standard MGM bare-bones presentation, including a theatrical trailer as the only supplement. The trailer is a lengthy four minutes and is narrated by Stanley Kramer.
Inherit the Wind is an engrossing film experience relying on an excellent script and two of the finest actors to have come out of Hollywood. For those who enjoy verbal jousting (and there seem to be many given the popularity of the legal thriller these days), this film from 1960 offers courtroom drama at its best. MGM’s DVD is nothing special, but it offers no impediment to full enjoyment of the film. Recommended.